Thursday, September 8, 2011

Cheater, Cheater Pants On Fire!

Um, maybe that's not correct, but what I can do is erase it and put in the right phrase, then resubmit it as my original answer. I look like an able student and my teacher gets a raise.

What's that you say? That's unethical? Tell that to the educational geniuses in Atlanta and Washington DC, who are all currently embroiled in cheating scandals that center on standardized tests that had statistically unfathomable rates of answers that were changed from wrong to right.

All of the country's public schools should be open by the end of this week, and the race is on to test our children into anxiety-induced oblivion.
Why is it that so-called education reformers from President Obama to governors to local school districts are so bent on introducing competition-based ideas into the nation's schools? And why is it that these reformers are ignoring the people who know how to best implement education; the nation's schoolteachers? Of course the main reason is that Republicans oppose any organization that aims to protect workers and give them power to shape their work environment, hours and pay, and they've been remarkably successful at getting public workers laid off and fired during a recession. Then they have the nerve to harp on the unemployment rate. Nice job.

The other reasons vary from all the money to be made by test-creation companies to the erroneous conclusion that our public schools, and the teachers who work there, are failing.

What's clear is that besides a general contempt for unions, these reformers believe that unbridled competition among and within schools is the best way to educate our children and to identify effective teachers. This is where they are completely wrong. It's true that some students will feel a need to compete in school in order to get into the best available college, but schools rely on cooperation not competition. Teachers need to cooperate with each other and share lesson plans, classroom management strategies and the latest research. Students need to cooperate because that's the nature of the American workplace (as countless CEO's have told us since the 1980s) and most educational research tells us that truly, two heads are better than one when trying to brainstorm and solve problems. Having teachers compete for more money is divisive and will destroy the essential character of schools.

We are seeing the first unfortunate consequences of this race to compete in these cheating scandals. Tying  student performance to teacher pay, will result in people who will make sure that they receive their raise, even if it means doing stupid illegal things. My fear is that this is only the beginning, because these episodes lay bare the major miscalculation the reformers have made:.

If you only make the tests meaningful to the teachers, students will feel free to not take them seriously, or worse, to tank the test in order to deliberately hurt a teacher. 

This point has been overlooked at every turn. If you want students to do their very best on these standardized assessments, then the tests have to be of the highest stakes. For example, a student will not move to the next grade or will need to repeat an academic class if they don't achieve a certain score. So far, I heave heard everything that blames a teacher for students not doing well on the tests, but nothing that holds the student responsible. Of course the reason for this is that no parent would want one test to determine their child's academic future. These same parents, though, have no problem using the test to judge a teacher's competence. Also, how shall we assess the Physical Education teacher, the nurse, guidance counselors, in-class support staff and other educators whose jobs are not as easily standardized? Teachers across the country have asked these questions, but nobody is supplying the answers.

One of the other goals of weakening teacher power and using tests as the ultimate decision factor (because, really, the test will be what determines a teacher's future), is that principals will now have more power to decide who stays and who goes. This is a terrible idea. In an age of austerity, we will see many experienced educators sacrificed in the name of economics as opposed to performance. Many times I have seen articles where a politician says that, "We need more young, energetic teachers in the classroom to replace the dead wood." That's code for cleaning out the expensive teacher for a younger, less experienced teacher who is statistically less likely to still be a teacher in 5 years than a seasoned veteran. It also would allow the firing of excellent teachers who don't get along well with the administration or are involved in union activities or are taking a job that an administrator's kin would like to have.

What the general public doesn't always understand is that, unlike in business, becoming an educational administrator is a self-selective process. If you want to become a principal or superintendent, then you go back to school and get the certifications. Very rarely is someone identified as talented and nurtured through the certification process. Thus, the quality of administrators varies wildly because there is no quality control, that is until someone gets the job, but by then they can do a lot of damage to a school.

Why would we want to give self-selecting administrators more power? Trust me, we wouldn't. One of the great things about teaching, and its due process protections after 3 years, is that teachers have the power to do what's right in the classroom without having to worry about an incompetent or ineffective administrator getting in the way. That irks the reformers no end because it challenges their belief that management is always right and labor is always wrong.

There is a way for educational reform to go forward in a pragmatic, intelligent, effective manner. I will treat that issue in a follow-up post.

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